Dragon spreads its wings

Twelve minutes after launch the Dragon spreads its wings (a.k.a. solar arrays). Source: @SpaceX

We have to congratulate SpaceX for another amazing achievement as they launched the first commercial supply mission to the ISS, which launched today at 02:35 CEST (check out the launch video via YT).

Even with an engine shut off in the most critical phase of the mission (around max Q – the point during ascent when aerodynamic forces are at the maximum), the capsule reached its planned orbit, demonstrating the robustness of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

The engine failure is, however, bad news for the auxiliary satellite payload by OrbComm. Their satellite missed the ISS ‘safety gate’, a window in the orbital elements (trajectory calculation) that ensures long-term collision avoidance with the ISS.

Therefore, the upper stage was not allowed to perform a second burn that would have raised the orbit of OrbComm to its nominal target orbit.

Puff the Magic Dragon

The Dragon Capsule is prepared for the first commercial resupply mission to the ISS (Source: SpaceX.com)

What is Space X doing right that so many others (industry and government agencies alike) do wrong? Since the huge success of the COTS2/3+ mission (subsequently renamed the Dragon C2+ flight) at the end of May this year, I’ve been asking myself that question.

First off: It is a bit unfair to compare the Falcon/Dragon programme to other government or private programmes, because NASA has accepted a lot of risk in the contract with SpaceX, and NASA is supporting the SpaceX programme with a great deal of infrastructure (TDRS data relay satellites, recovery aircraft, ground tracking stations, ISS assets).

On the other hand: SpaceX has pulled off the development of a mid-size launch vehicle (including highly reliable engines) plus a very capable spacecraft for a budget below $2B and within less than 10 years.

What is going on here? Is the established space community inefficient? After thinking about it for a while, I have no final conclusion, but a hypothesis: the amount of outsourcing that has occurred in the 1990s in those companies/agencies has taken a lot of innovation and technical leadership from them. Now they depend on a contract-mechanism to implement programs. This dependency increases both cost and implementation time. What do you think?


Postscriptum: Elon Musk discusses many of the aspects mentioned above in this interview.